Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 8, 2010
Asian Catholics bring vitality
Strong faith, devotional life is hallmark of local Asian parishes
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Despite language barriers, the disruptive experience of immigration and other obstacles, Asian Catholics are integrating into Canadian life and keeping their faith alive in Edmonton.
During a time when the total number of churchgoers has fallen nationwide, the city's immigrant communities have helped sustain the Church in recent decades - most notably through an influx of Asian immigrants.
Having their own parishes in Edmonton are the Chinese (Mary Help of Christians), Koreans (St. Jung Ha Sang) and Vietnamese (Queen of Martyrs).
The Chinese Catholic Community was formed in the 1970s, gathered by Sister Gertrude Kwan. By 1982, Salesian Father Francisco de Assisi Lau was taking care of spiritual development and communication. In June 1986, the Chinese Catholic Community purchased the Hungarian Catholic Church in Chinatown with a seating capacity of 250. The community was renamed Mary Help of Christians.
As Chinese immigrated to Edmonton, more parishioners attending services and the building in poor repair, the congregation purchased the former Knights of Columbus Hall at 10140-119 St. Today the parish serves more than 400 families.
In the summer of 2008, Father John Mak, who had served as a priest for the Chinese community in Calgary for 25 years, was asked to take over temporarily in Edmonton.
He came to visit the pastor, Father Joseph Cheng, who was sick and ended up helping to look after the parish. "Before him, Father Joseph Ho was sick most of the time and so the parishioners felt a little bit abandoned for awhile," said Mak.
His temporary stay was extended. He arrived as their new pastor in July 2008 and has been here ever since.
Aside from the potential language barrier, a Catholic from another parish would find few surprises at Mary Help of Christians. Given the universality of the Catholic Church, they follow the same liturgy. One exception was the liturgy that marked the Chinese New Year.
"For those who are new to Canada, they try their best to integrate into Canadian society, otherwise they would have just stayed in Hong Kong," said Mak.
The charism Chinese Canadians contribute to the Church is organizational ability. They are masters at fundraising and coordinating charity events, and are generous donors for community causes.
Edmonton's Korean community also has a vibrant parish. In 1976, with only a dozen parishioners, the idea of establishing the Edmonton Korean Catholic Church was born. The name was changed in 1985 to St. Jung Ha Sang. A total of 38 families were attending services by 1989. In 1991, the parish moved to the former St. James Church, which was later renamed after their patron saint.
"Not having our own church, we were limited to certain things we could do, but now with our own church we can set our own times, set our own Bible studies and meetings without the influence of another group," said Father Joon-ho (John Baptiste) Lee, priest at St. Jung Ha Sang.
"It doesn't matter if it's a small church. No matter how big it is, it would be better for the same ethnic group to have their own parish."
The hallmark of Edmonton's Korean Catholics is their strong faith and devotional life, as evidenced by the large number of vocations. Korea has the fourth largest number of saints in the Church by nation and its number of priestly ordinations is near the top.
The rise of Catholicism in South Korea is related to the profound discontent felt by the masses, prompted by centuries of dire poverty, social marginalization and oppression. The Church's active role in the labour movement and democratic movement appeals to the Korean people.
"As time has gone by, the Catholic faith has emerged into the Korean culture and has created uniqueness in Korea," said Lee. "As we continue traditional Catholic faith, we have also added the Korean culture together to create a Catholicism that caters to us."
Statistics from 2007 showed that the parish population has increased every year, with Sunday Mass attendance averaging 340 parishioners, about 32 per cent of the congregation. An estimated 15 per cent of the city's Koreans are Catholic.
The Koreans formed small Christian communities in 2004, with groups in 12 different zones throughout the city. Every individual group meets twice a month at a designated family's house for Bible study.
The Tamils, from south India and northeastern Sri Lanka, while mostly Hindus, have a sizable Christian population. In India there are 22 million Christians - many of them Catholics - representing about 2.4 per cent of the total population. Tamil Catholics from south India and northeastern Sri Lanka have arrived in Canada over the last 40 years.
Proof of the advance of Asians in the Church came when a Vietnamese priest, Vincent Nguyen, was ordained Canada's first Asian Catholic bishop on Jan. 13. He is an auxiliary bishop in Toronto.
Locally, the Vietnamese Catholics have been based at Queen of Martyrs, 10830-96 St., since 2001. The parish has 250 registered families. The parish priest is Father Peter Hung Tran.
Huan Ngo, president of the parish pastoral council, told the WCR that the Vietnamese are "latecomers to Canada" in comparison to other Asians and are still in a transition period of adapting to Canadian culture and language. Vietnamese people immigrating to Canada peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"Having our own parish is very important to the people, especially the elder people in our parish who speak only Vietnamese. We probably have more of a need than other Asian communities, such as the Filipino community, who have been in Canada a little bit longer and integrated into the Canadian culture as far as language is concerned," said Ngo.
The parish has 30 youth group members, two 30-person choirs, and has just established a 39-member Knights of Columbus council.
Like other Asian parishes, Queen of Martyrs adds a cultural flavour to Mass, including a worship dance. This involves children bringing up flowers and dancing in front of the altar at the offering.
"We try to maintain the link between generations, young and old. That's the most important thing for us at this point. The language barrier causes a natural separation, a division. We try to bridge that gap by allowing the children to participate in the liturgy at church and teaching them Vietnamese readings. It's an ongoing challenge, but it's part of life in Canada," said Ngo.
Over time he is confident that the Vietnamese Catholics will assimilate into the Church, as the Filipinos do. Unless there are more Vietnamese newcomers, eventually they will not need their own parish.
"We have seen that with other ethnics who have come to Canada. We have seen that with the Ukrainian, French and German. I don't think we will be any different," said Ngo. "We are a culture of family and community, so maybe we will hold onto it a little bit longer, but I don't think we can avoid the inevitable."
The Filipinos, who do not have their own parish, are dispersed widely, with particularly strong contingents at St. Theresa's Parish, St. John Bosco and St. Joseph's Basilica.
"The Filipinos are very flexible. While we have a distinct and unique culture, a positive outlook on the part of Filipinos is to be inclusive rather than exclusive. They can easily be approached and find it easy to get along well with others," said Father Nilo Macapinlac, a Filipino priest who pastors rural churches in Vegreville, Viking and Holden.
"The key for the Filipinos is that we are the only Christian Catholic nation in Southeast Asia, and God has planned for us to get out from our country," Macapinlac said. "Now there are Filipinos all over the world."
One of his German friends from St. Albert went on a pilgrimage to Europe and attended Mass in a parish where the choir, lectors and greeters were mostly Filipinos. Wherever there are Catholics in this world, almost without exception one will find Filipinos.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.